Is Turkey Muslim or Modern? Europe Asks

Times Staff Writer

Is Turkey this: a man in baggy pantaloons, farming as it has been done for generations to support a large family that includes four wives? Or is it this: a bustling business center where skyscrapers share the horizon with the spires of some of the world’s most majestic mosques?

Is Turkey a country where 40% of academic and legal professionals are women? Or is it a nation where women who bring sexual “dishonor” to their families risk being killed by relatives who may never be punished?

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 14, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 14, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Turkey seeking to join EU -- An article Tuesday in Section A about Turkey’s bid for membership in the European Union carried a headline that said, “Is Turkey Muslim or Modern? Europe Asks.” As the story conveyed, Turkey is a nation caught between modern and traditional forces. The headline should not have suggested that Turkey cannot be both Muslim and modern.

Turkey is all of these things, and the tug of war between conservative tradition and modern aspiration has never been more visible than it is now, as the nation of 69 million attempts to become the first Muslim-majority member of the European Union. On Dec. 17, the 25-state bloc is to decide whether to formally open membership negotiations with Turkey, after a conditional green light from the EU’s executive body last week.

“I know it’s a cliche, of Turkey being the bridge between East and West, between the modern and the traditional. But it’s true,” said Fatmagul Berktay, a political scientist at Istanbul University. “We are in between in every sense.”

Turkey straddles two continents, serving as the crossroads of civilizations for millenniums. Today, the European side of the divide is the more prosperous, but the majority of Turks live in the larger, poorer swath that sweeps over the mountains and plains of Asia Minor toward Iraq, Syria and the rest of the Middle East.


The paradox is also embodied in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who began his political career in an openly Islamist party but later formed his own centrist organization. Steering Turkish law toward EU standards, he has frequently backed down on issues that are important to his more conservative followers.

Most Turks are eager to join the EU, convinced that membership will bring prosperity and greater cultural freedom. Many in Europe oppose letting Turkey into the club, concerned that the country’s poverty, its history of political instability and, truth be told, its overwhelming Muslim character are too far out of sync with the predominantly Christian West.

After making steady progress toward bringing its laws and human rights practices into line with European standards, Turkey badly stumbled last month with an attempt to criminalize adultery.

Although it was eventually squelched, the proposed law, an effort to mix religion and state, inflicted significant, perhaps irreparable, damage to its bid to join the bloc, said diplomats, officials and analysts in a series of interviews over the last two weeks.

The proposal underscored the visceral fears that Europeans express when eyeing Turkey, and it came as European opposition to Turkish membership was becoming more vocal for a variety of reasons, both social and economic.

With Western Europe already grappling with how to integrate burgeoning Muslim immigrant communities -- France, for instance, recently banned Islamic head scarves in public schools -- many people wondered whether Erdogan and his associates were fundamentalists in business suits.

“This was not an area in which they could afford to have anything go wrong,” said an EU ambassador based in Ankara, the Turkish capital. “It was the wrong area, the wrong time and the wrong club. It hit us like an Exocet rocket ... between the eyes.”

Since its founding 80 years ago, modern Turkey has been officially a secular state, with a powerful army and rigid rules to enforce that status. Women are not permitted to wear head scarves in schools or state offices, and imams, or Muslim preachers, are state-appointed and their sermons censored by the government. Polygamy is illegal, although it is still practiced in some areas.

Erdogan has tried to maintain a delicate balance since taking office in March 2003, mindful that Turkey’s first pro-Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, was ousted by the military in 1997. He sent his daughters to university in America so they could cover their hair as well as study, and his scarf-wearing wife is absent from most official functions.

Erdogan is generally considered a savvy enough politician to understand European sensitivities, but, by most accounts, he also believed in the adultery law as a way to protect the family and the honor of women. He may also have seen it as a bone he could throw his most traditional constituents.

Summoned to Brussels, the seat of EU power, Erdogan hashed out his differences with the bloc and finally backed down on the adultery issue. When Turkey’s new, comprehensive, 346-paragraph penal code was approved Sept. 26 in a hastily called emergency session of parliament, it did not include a clause criminalizing adultery.

“Our thinking, planning and expectations are completely geared to the idea that we will start negotiations to join the EU,” women’s affairs minister Guldal Aksit said in an interview, explaining the climb-down. “There is no alternative.”

Three steps forward, two steps back -- that’s how the struggle to modernize Turkish law is often seen here, especially among the women’s organizations that have been at the forefront of the campaign.

Feminist lawyer Hulya Gulbahar barely had time to savor one victory -- quashing the adultery law -- when she had to gear up for another battle: reports that the penal code would retain a provision that reduces punishment for rapists who marry their victims.

The thinking behind such a statute is that a raped woman is “damaged goods” and will never be married unless her attacker takes her in. Activists say such marriages often condemn the woman to a life of violence.

A phone at each ear and typing furiously on her computer, Gulbahar paused to meet with a reporter between canvassing her contacts and trying to reach lawmakers to find out whether yet another setback had been handed to reformers.

“It is one big tug of war,” Gulbahar said. The ruling party is “very conservative, and there is an enormous gap between their mentality and ours. But they are showing signs of being able to modify their thinking.”

Ultimately, the conservatives retreated and the penal code was passed without the provision on rapists. The new code also addresses so-called honor killings, a tribal custom that Turkish officials have attempted to eliminate for years.

Especially in rural, largely Kurdish parts of the country, there are numerous incidents in which men kill female relatives who are believed to have besmirched the family’s honor. The perceived disgrace might be the result of extramarital sex, but it can also happen when a woman is raped or merely speaks to a male outside the family.

The new code calls for severe consequences for men who are convicted of such crimes, almost completely eliminating the extenuating circumstances a killer can claim. It also punishes men who send their adolescent brothers to slay the offending female relative. (Minors usually escape prison time.)

The law was too late to help Gulseren Artuk, 22, unmarried and five months pregnant in the southern province of Sanliurfa. She was shot three times in the head on Sept. 20 as she worked in the fields, allegedly by her 16-year-old nephew at the behest of her older brothers carrying out the decision of a “family council.” They determined that Artuk became pregnant through an affair with an unidentified man and had to die to cleanse the family of shame.

In a sign of change, her brothers were arrested. Activists are encouraged by the facts that such cases now merit headlines in Turkish newspapers and public awareness is growing. Moreover, courts are becoming less lenient when “honor killers” appear before them.

Unfortunately for Turkey’s appeal to Europe, much of the progress has been overshadowed by the adultery controversy.

With many people uneasy about adding 70 million Muslims to the EU -- Turkey would be the largest member state after Germany -- the proposed ban gave a boost to those who say Turkey is a culture apart.

The Vatican’s leading doctrinal theologian, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, announced his opposition to admitting Turkey, saying Europe must maintain its “cultural” -- i.e., Christian -- identity.

One Dutch politician -- invoking the Turkish invaders of the Ottoman Empire who more than 300 years ago laid siege to Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- warned that Christian Europe must once again repel the Islamic onslaught. The liberal Austrian magazine Profil agreed, headlining its editorial against Turkish EU membership “Turks at the Gates of Vienna.”

Surveys have shown that most Europeans are ambivalent at best about Turkey joining the EU, while the Bush administration favors it as a way to promote a “model” form of Islam that coexists with democracy.

As a member, Turkey would have access to Europe’s enormous consumer market, and its citizens would be able to cross European borders freely. Many Europeans worry about being inundated by Turkish workers taking jobs, but some economists note that Europe’s fast-aging populace could benefit from Turkey’s young work force.

If Turkey is not invited to join the EU, it loses the principal incentive for enacting political and economic reforms, analysts said, and may turn inward to a more nationalistic brand of Islam. The dangling carrot of EU membership also helps keep Erdogan in power and the military at bay.

“Europe as such would not drop Turkey like a stone,” the EU ambassador said. “But the whole process is a long, tenuous, very tricky path.”



Continental crossroads

Area: 301,384 square miles (slightly larger than Texas)

Population: 68.9 million

Median age: 27

Population growth rate: 1.13%

Infant mortality: 42.62 deaths/1,000 live birthsE

Life expectancy: 72.1 years

Ethnicity: 80% Turk, 20% Kurd

Religious affiliation: 99.8% Muslim (predominantly Sunni), other, mostly Christian and Jewish

Literacy: 86.5%

Government: Parliamentary democracy including a president, prime minister, unicameral legislature and a judicial branch

Economic growth rate: 5.8% (2003 estimate)

Inflation rate: 25% (2003 estimate)

Economy composition: Services, 58%; industry, 30%; agriculture, 12%

Population below poverty line: 18% (2001)

Unemployment rate: 10.5% (2003 estimate)

Major exports: Clothing, food, textiles, metal products, transportation equipment

Changing times

Turkey’s desire to join the European Union has stimulated change:

Death penalty abolished

State television began broadcasting in the Kurdish language

Torture in prisons abolished

Military’s widespread influence in politics and society curbed

Proposed law to criminalize adultery quashed


Sources: CIA World Factbook, 2004; Times reports